Is parenting -- and, yes, I'm going to say it, motherhood specifically -- really All Joy and No Fun, as the title of the new book suggests?
It has its moments, certainly. Like last week, when I had a raging sinus infection and my 5-year-old had this epic, completely batshit, pissing-his-pants and throwing-his-toys meltdown just before (or, more correctly, a few minutes after) bedtime. His behavior sent the 4-year-old running away in terror, which then set the 7-year-old on edge, for fear that his slightly OCD nighttime routine was going to be disrupted. Good times. Especially when Dad's out of town and you live close enough to meth country that plain old Sudafed is actually pretty hard to come by.
But, generally speaking, I do, in fact, have a tremendous amount of fun being my kids' mom. They are screamingly funny, weird, beautiful little people, with whom it is possible to (1) roll around on the rug, tickling each other, (2) tell fart jokes and make very bad puns, (3) read all my favorite books from childhood and discover new ones, (4) stop everything that you are doing to stare for a very long time at a star in the sky or a deer in the woods or a bird by the window, (5) play board games and (6) hurriedly slurp down hot chocolate in order to get to best, goopiest part at the bottom of the mug.
There is drudgery, of course. My boys seem to somehow generate more dirty laundry than your average developing nation. Planning, procuring, preparing, serving and cleaning up their meals seems to require about 27 hours a day.
And there is joy. There is something transcendent about holding a sick/crying/scared child in your arms and knowing that you are his source of protection and comfort and love and shelter in the world. That overwhelming kind of love would, in fact, be enough to outweigh the drudgery. (On most days. Not the sinus infection day. But most others.)
But I honestly can't imagine mothering my kids and not having fun while doing it.
There are always people around who'll tell you HOW.HARD.IT.REALLY.IS to do this or that. And, having kids certainly has more than its share of truth-telling martyrs, many of whom are catalogued in this excellent piece from Slate.com. My personal favorite is the essay about how having three kids is pretty much the most difficult parenting challenge ever -- far worse than, say, having five kids or 10 kids or (ha!) one kid. Guess how many children the author has.
Part of the difference here is in definitions. Once, when we were still living in our small two-bedroom condo in Chicago, I spent several hours, after the boys had gone to bed, using every single block and train track they had to construct an elaborate railroad and highway system that ran through our entire home. This is not the sort of activity that I would have considered fun at other points in my life. Graduate School Me, for example, would have been appalled by the idea of doing anything with one's free time that did not involve intellectual stimulation at the level of, say, the Algonquin Roundtable. And Single In The City Me would have sniffed contemptuously at the thought of crawling around amidst the dust bunnies without a glass of red wine and massive dose of irony. But that night (and, of course, the morning that followed it, which was something like Christmas) is one of my fondest memories of living in that place -- and not just because of how happy it made my kids. It was actually fun to play with their toys, to snap together the wooden track pieces in all their configurations and make them into a series of loops and turns figure eights.
Not everyone feels that way, of course. And, though it is unimaginable to me, I am sure there are some parents who don't have eleventy-zillion Thomas the Tank Engine parts and accessories with which to express their inner-engineer. But surely, there is some fun to be had in this whole experience, whatever your particular version of that might be.
That fun, though, is elusive, or it can be. I'll give that to all the complainers. Multitasking, especially, can suck the fun right out of a day. When I'm with my kids, but I still have a call to make or an email to send for work, the pressure of knowing that I have to get something done shortens my fuse in a dramatic way.
"No, I do not want to hear about what happened in your game of Spy Mouse right now," I hear myself saying, with something close to rage buried just under my too-calm tone of voice.
And then a vicious cycle begins, wherein I feel guilty and horrible for being the kind of person who could wish that her sweet, brilliant boy would just GO.AWAY.AND.BE.QUIET for a few minutes because a client's press release needs a third round of word smithing. And then I hate myself because I used to be a highly competent professional with a daily deadline and now I am the kind of person who struggles to get a single press release out on time. So, yeah, OK that's not fun.
This, I suspect is what's really behind the whole motherhood-is-ass-kickingly-hard trend we see in books, blogs and Facebook posts. It's not motherhood, per se, but a very specific kind of motherhood, as practiced by a very specific kind of mother.
We take for granted, of course, that poor women are "balancing work and family." Because if they don't work, their families don't eat. Not a lot of room for navel-gazing there. Let alone time to worry about whether anyone is having fun.
It's this angst-y malaise of privilege -- we have so, so much. Perhaps it's too much. Perhaps it's organized in the wrong way. Perhaps there's no way to manage it all.
There's a part of me that thinks we should all just shut the hell up with our over-entitled complaining. On my hardest day, I have things about a thousand times easier than a poor, single, teen mom on Chicago's West Side. And she, stunningly, has things a hundred times easier than her counterpart in a developing country where there is no clean water or health care system or free public schooling or infrastructure.
We should be humble enough to know how lucky we are.
Yet it is necessary for us to tell the truth of how hard we work, how much we struggle and how challenging it is for us to be good parents and do good work and raise good children because, for all our bitching and moaning, there are still people other there who would deny the needs we all have -- and the social responsibility implied by those needs -- in raising up the next generation. It really does take a village. And it's really, really much harder when you don't have one.
From those of us to whom much has been given, much should be expected. We ought to be making things better -- not worse -- for the women who do not have all the incredible advantages and resources we have. That (I hope, anyway) is the impetus for much of our whining about the challenges we face: If we, the lucky ones, are just barely making it through our days, how freaking ridiculously hard is it for everyone else?
That was my reaction to U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who gave the Republican response to last week's State of the Union address from President Obama. Without getting into the whole, weird fetish Republicans have for the moms of kids with Down Syndrome (a total dog whistle to the radical pro-lifers), let us just stipulate that McMorris Rodgers is, in fact, a bona fide Supermom. Her Instagram feed features a photo of her editing her post-SOTU remarks with one hand while cradling her 8-week-old infant in her other arm. That is hardcore and I give it all due respect. Eight weeks after the birth of my third child, I was... well, actually, I have no idea. I might have managed to take a shower by that point.
Still, it's worth noting that the reality behind that gorgeous, inspiring and yes, slightly shaming, Instagram picture, is that McMorris Rodgers is married to a retired Navy man who is their children's full-time caregiver. Not many of us have the opportunity to draw pension income while being home with our kids. Not many of us have their government health care benefits, either. McMorris Rodgers also has a job with a pretty cushy attendance policy. She misses a lot of Congressional votes (about three times as many as the average representative, according to govtrack.us, a Congressional monitoring site) without having her pay docked or, apparently, getting negative performance reviews from her nominal bosses, the people of Washington state's 5th congressional district.
So, yeah, we've come a long way, baby, and all that. For sure. But, in making it all look so easy, she's leaving a few things out of the picture. I think that's what so many of us feel compelled to step up and correct. There are reasons we simply cannot do what she's doing.
Even as I've been sitting at my desk writing this, AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong was on TV talking about how very costly his company's health benefit offerings have been, and how they need to be re-thought, because two women at the company had the nerve to give birth to "distressed babies," whose health care costs totaled nearly a million dollars a piece.
Besides just sounding like a complete a**hole (which, though I am not his media strategist, THANK GOD, I am going to assume was not his goal), Armstrong seemed to be making his own entry in the ITS.SO.VERY.HARD competition, bemoaning the fact that his company's "human resources" are also, you know, human beings with lives and babies and such.
If you happened to be one of the two AOL'ers in question here, coping with the unimaginable stress of raising a medically fragile baby, it's probably neither joyful nor fun to hear that, by the way, it's totally your fault that your colleagues are now going to get screwed out of some of the retirement income they were counting on. Aside: I mean, you didn't think it could be the CEO's fault, did you? Because all the other management decisions AOL has made have been spot-on. It's your fault, working moms.
The guilt and anxiety and fear that hold us back from having more fun are not easy to control. We are bombarded with worries for ourselves, our careers, our children's futures, the state of the world. But, as parents, we are also given an incredible gift: The chance to once again experience the world by living in the moment. Surely there is a way to do that honestly and honorably -- to acknowledge both that we are supremely lucky and also completely in over our heads.